Tag Archive | Nature

The Day After the First Freeze

IMG_9610 (533x800)Today is the day after the first freeze of the season, and it smells kind of funny around here.  I am pretty sure it is not me; although one can never know for certain, I did just wash my winter sweaters when I pulled them down from the top shelf of the closet the other day for the first time since last spring.  But I step onto the back patio, and I am struck by the odor.

It is the smell of decay, and I am struck by how quickly it has set in.  It was just last night that the killing frost happened.  When I went to bed a little after 10 p.m., which is early for me, the electronic thermometer in the living room said it was still 35 degrees outside.  The freeze probably did not come for several hours after that, so a good guess is that about 15 hours ago, everything was still alive, and there was no reason other than the sterotypically unreliable predictions of the weather forecasters to expect that it would actually get cold enough to kill.  But now, the leaves on the lantana have turned almost black, and their flowers, which were vividly red and orange and yellow just yesterday, have followed suit.  The blooms that shone on the hibiscus out by the mailbox have faded from their yellow and orange and pink to brown, too, and their leaves, at least the ones on the outside of the plant, are drooping, ready to fall.  The massive elephant ears have graciously passed out, falling to the ground behind the azaleas and the heather and the mondo grass, where no one will have to watch as the water in their cells is released, making them into a soggy pile of mush.  But the bolder cannas, which just yesterday burned like torches with their bright orange and gold flowers on top of the tall towers of their stems, are now just as tall and bold in their decay, the brown hue of plant death standing in front of the bedroom windows, calling all to witness the injustice and shock of their sudden demise.

All of that death has come together to generate that smell.  There is a complexity in the odor:  it is clearly sour, and if I discovered it in my refrigerator, it would be a warning to me that whatever it emanates from would probably make my stomach turn inside out.  But there is a sweetness to it, too, and when that odor mixes with the smell of smoke coming from a neighbor’s fireplace, burning against the chill in the air to make a house feel the warmth a home is supposed to have, that odor of decay evokes autumn.

I look again at the plants which are now, suddenly, generating that odor.  They are dead now, and death always brings the feelings of grief:  of sadness at the loss of things that were once so beautiful, of regret at the missed opportunities to appreciate and tend better to those things which are now gone, of fear because death is so sudden and so complete, of anger at the injustice of vulnerability, of a simple but overwhelming exhaustion that comes from having spent an exorbitant energy on a deep love.  It is best not to rush those feelings that come with grief.  It is best to notice them when they appear, to acknowledge their presence, maybe even to greet them politely, and to endure them and even appreciate them while they are taking up our mental and emotional space.  They won’t go away, no matter how hard we try to show them the door, so we do the best we can to receive them when they show up, even though they did not have the good manners to call ahead and let us know they were coming.

But even as I look at the remains of the leaves and flowers in my garden, and even as I smell death and decay in the air, I notice and I know that there is something more going on.  The hibiscus will be left with nothing but the eerie form of sticks poking out of the ground, but in a few months, new leaf buds will form on those sticks, and they will bloom again next year.  The lantana will have to be cut back to the ground, but around the base, new branches will grow in the spring.  The cannas and the elephant ears have complex webs of bulbs and tubers at their base, just out of sight under the leaves and mulch, and those will absorb more and more water and nutrients through the coming season, so that new towers of stems and leaves will shoot out again someday.  And I even have hope that the gardenia which I bought last spring but never got into the ground, which did so well in its pot in that spot out by the bird bath, which I meant just last weekend to put into the ground to protect it from the cold air, will survive and thrive again.  Death is not the end of the story; there is still the miracle of resurrection to come; I am assured of things I hope for, and I am convinced of things that I have not seen.

Earlier today, I heard the story of a man whose mother died while he was still a nursing infant.  Not many years later, his father died, too, and he and his sister were taken into the homes of relatives.  When he was 18, he set out on his own.  In the course of his life, he traveled the world, built a career advising others in the investment of their personal finances, raised a family of happy and successful children and grandchildren, cared for his wife as she got sick, and finally died at 86 years old, having decided to give up dialysis so he could leave this world with the dignity of the ability to make choices still intact.

That story gave me hope:  hope in the ability of people to survive times of deathly grief, hope in the power of family and community to make each of us feel loved and safe and strong, hope that the sorrow of the present will be redeemed by the joy of the future, hope in the abundance and eternity of life, hope even in the smell of decay that comes on the day after the first freeze.  Because that odor is not the end of the story, but only a sign of new things to come.

Grandpa Hamilton’s Forest

IMG_2861 (800x533)In 1907, my great grandfather bought a farm in the Sequatchie Valley in Tennessee. He had lived in the Sequatchie Valley all his life; in fact, his family had farmed in that valley since his own great grandfather settled there long before Tennessee became a state. Grandpa Hamilton had deep roots in farming, and even deeper roots in that part of the world.

The Hamiltons were not wealthy; he bought the land only after he sold another farm which had been given to him when he was married 18 years earlier. I would love to know who gave him a farm as a wedding present, but I don’t. Once he bought his new farm, he built a small house on it for his family to live in. There are three rooms in the house, plus a kitchen and a hallway, and off the side porch, there is another small room. In the back, there is a small building which covers the well and a small room behind it. I am sure there was an outhouse in the vicinity at one time, because there is no way to meet those needs in the house. There is a shed out front and a barn a hundred yards or so to the north of the house. In 1907, he had six children, ranging in age from 2 to 16; two more children were born in that house before his first wife died in 1916. I have no idea how ten people all got along in those four rooms, plus a kitchen.

Although the house is not large, Grandpa Hamilton did not seem to skimp on the details. Every room in the main part of the house has a brick fireplace. The ceilings are high, and there are plenty of windows. There are porches on three sides, a few cabinets and a good-sized sink in the kitchen, and a crawl space underneath. There is asbestos siding on the outside, a hazard now but a quality material then, and a metal roof on the top, although those may have been added later.  The house was built to last a long time.

And it has lasted a long time. 107 years later, it is still standing. The porch floors have rotted in places, and one corner of the roof covering the front porch has caved in. The wallpaper is peeling to reveal the lath boards underneath. Some of the faces on the fireplaces are crumbling, most of the windows are broken, some of the doors don’t close all the way, and the floor is a bit uneven. But the house is still there.

Besides building that simple but sturdy house, though, Grandpa Hamilton did a remarkable thing. With roots as deep as his in that valley and in the business of farming, he knew the value of the land he owned. However, he set his house off the road a good bit, and around the house and between there and the road, he preserved several acres of trees. They were large trees of species native to that area: walnut, hickory, oak, cedar, and others. My dad wrote to me a few years ago recalling about his grandfather that “squirrels and birds thrived, and he allowed only very limited hunting when damage could be observed in the barn bins.”

Grandpa Hamilton and his sons mowed the weeds around the woodland, and they planted acres and acres of corn and other crops out back. But they left that land around the trees undisturbed. His grandson and great-grandsons who still farm the land have kept up that practice, and the woodland has remained so thick that it is impossible for a person to penetrate. It is much like I imagine most of the land in that part of the world looked before people came along to cut down the trees, hack out the undergrowth, till the soil, and sow their crops.

For the past 30 years or so, no one has cleared the brush from around the house, either. And while Grandpa Hamilton’s trees and their offspring have almost overtaken the house now, with some of the trunks so close that they seem to climb the exterior walls, I wonder if the trees he preserved are part of what have kept that simple building standing for so long. The unused houses and barns up and down the valley which are not surrounded with trees show their vulnerability to the wind and the rain. They have roofs and walls which are caving in and frames which are leaning. But protected from the wind and all but the heaviest of rains, Grandpa Hamilton’s house still stands in the forest he set aside out of his farmland.

Grandpa Hamilton was no progressive. From what my dad tells me, he called Franklin Roosevelt one of the worst things to happen to this country. I can just imagine my father as a young boy listening as his grandfather repeated that strongly-held opinion to him, loudly, over and over again; he would not have been the first old man who held tightly to his view of the world as the world changed around him. But he was ahead of his time in at least this one regard: he valued nature, and he worked to preserve it, even if that meant giving up some of his precious farmland.

In the suburban community where I live, I recently had a conversation with someone about trees. I have made my feelings about trees and the way they are treated in our suburban community known before. In this conversation, I talked about whether it would be possible to plant some new trees where some ancient but dead specimens of native magnolia, sweetgum, live oak, and hickory nut have recently been removed. The person I was talking with agreed that it would be good to replace the removed trees. But the varieties were another story. “Those trees are all messy,” she said. “They drop leaves, branches, and litter all over the yard. Maybe we can find some modern hybrids of those same kinds of trees. No one is going to want those trees around that they have to clean up after!”

And I was mystified. I wanted to scream: “They are trees; of course they drop leaves and branches. The leaves and branches can be removed, or even better, they can be chopped up and used to enhance the soil under the trees. That is the way those varieties of trees have thrived in our area for millions of years before we came along!” But I let my suburban sensitivities get the better of me, and I just smiled politely.

I think Grandpa Hamilton and I would have at least a few things in common.

Pulling Over

IMG_5171 (537x800)There is something about the practice of pulling over for a funeral procession which I really, really love.

I have been in more funeral processions than I ever want to be in recently.  Traditionally, the clergy involved pulls into the funeral procession directly behind the hearse.  I am not sure why this is the practice; perhaps someone thought that the clergy should have time to get settled at the little stand set under the tent in front of the couple of rows of folding chairs covered in velvet at the graveside.  It really doesn’t take me much time to get settled in before I start a graveside service, but still, when the funeral director waves me to get in line behind the casket, in front of the limousine or cars of the grieving widow or widower or children and grandchildren, I oblige.

It does make me a bit self-conscious, though.  My car is a small SUV, bright red in color.  At best, it breaks the mood of the beginning of the procession, and at worst, it clashes horribly.  I try to keep the outside of my car cleaned up, just so I don’t glare too boldly among the more formal black or white cars that surround me in the funeral procession.  But funerals tend to come up unexpectedly, and I don’t always have time to wash the car.  I like to think that it’s not so bad that my car is a little messy as it follows the hearse and precedes the limos; death is a little messy, too, no matter how hard the funeral directors try to pretty it up.

But from my vantage point at the front of the procession, I get to see how the drivers of the other cars on the road react when they see a hearse coming down the road.  Some of the roads our local funeral directors have to use to get to the cemeteries are wide thoroughfares, with several lanes across, and they are traveled by many people who have to get to their work, their appointments, their errands, their dates, and their other business.  And invariably, as we are traveling across town, many people will react to the hearse and the line of cars following it with a traditional sign of respect:  they will pull over to the side of the road and stop, showing a reverence for the deceased and those who loved him or her as they accompany the earthly remains to be put in the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all of that.

This practice is remarkable to me.  As someone who likes to work in the garden, I see things die all the time.  Of course, there are the plants.  Some plants die each year when the first freeze comes so their seeds can scatter and their offspring will find the space, soil, and other resources they need to thrive.  Other plants are supposed to live a long time, but for one reason or another, they just don’t survive.  But there are plenty of other signs of death all around me in my yard.  I have had to decide what to do with the carcasses of myriad wildlife in my yard:  several anonymous birds, squirrels, mice, and other creatures are buried amid the palmettos and confederate jasmine which spread themselves near the compost can in the corner of my back yard.  Other creatures, like the raccoon that decided the middle of our lawn was a fine place to take his dying breaths while we were away one night last June, would not fit in the small holes I can dig amid the roots of the oak trees back there.  Instead, they have been bagged and, with as much reverence as possible given the circumstances, put in the trash can the city dutifully empties every Monday.

Some more intimately known and loved creatures are a part of our landscape, too.  Fred the bird, our cockatiel who spent three or four years in our breakfast nook before moving on to his ultimate reward, was carefully wrapped in a piece of an old, white cotton sheet and placed at the base of the big oak tree in the corner of the back yard.  My son, who was about four at the time, didn’t want to participate in the burial, so I went out there by myself with my shovel.  I carefully made sure the neighborhood cats and other creatures wouldn’t disturb Fred’s feathery body while its elements combined with the surrounding soil.  I marked the place with a flat stone left over from the path in the side yard which we tore out.  I should remember to look next time I am out there to make sure the stone is still in place.

Death happens all the time in nature and in the landscape, which is why I think it is remarkable that some people pull over as they see a funeral procession driving on the road.  Those who stop their cars are willing to stop their work and stop their deadlines and stop their pace.  They are willing to acknowledge that, while death happens all the time, for the person whose body is in the hearse, death will only happen once.  They are willing to honor that person, even if she is a stranger, even if they don’t know anything at all about his life, and to honor the impact of that person’s life on his or her family and community and our world.  They are willing to show some simple sign of sympathy for the ones whose cars are following that hearse, too:  the people who loved that man or woman, the people who were most impacted by his life, the people who are most grieved by her death.  Their act of pulling over and putting on the brakes is an acknowledgement of the pain of death and an affirmation of the importance of each life.  That acknowledgement and affirmation, and the resource of unplanned time that some are willing to devote to it, is remarkable.

Mind you, I don’t get upset when some people don’t stop for a funeral procession.  Up north, the clergy is often invited to ride in the hearse or with the funeral director, and one time I was with a driver who got angry when someone refused to stop.  He said that he was often tempted to slam on the hearse brakes, stop the procession, get out of the vehicle, and scold the person to show some respect.  I don’t know that such anger is necessary; I understand that people are sometimes running late or in some other kind of hurry, that they did not plan to encounter a funeral procession, that some processions go on and on, with car after car moving well under the speed limit.  I have been late before, and I have encountered funeral processions, and I have been reluctant to stop for them.

But I have realized recently that it is a gift when someone does pull over and stop when they see the signs of death driving on the road.  It is a gift of quiet acknowledgement for the deceased.  It is a gift of anonymous sympathy for the family and friends.  And it is a gift of respectful affirmation for the one who stops.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Tree Removal?!?

IMG_7388 (533x800)Last Friday, I was at home alone while my son was in school and my wife was at a conference.  I was painting the trim in our bedroom, a tedious task, but one which I did not want to have interrupted.  The dog became agitated, so I knew someone was probably coming to the door.  I looked out the window, and a man was sitting up in the back of a pickup truck which was driving slowly down the street.  He waved a friendly wave, and another man came up the driveway.  That man handed me a business card, pointed at the River Birch which stands a few yards outside my front door, and said, “Your tree here:  we’ll take it down, haul it away, grind up the stump, uhhh… three hundred dollars.”  He looked at me like he expected me to sing a Doxology at his offer to make the River Birch vanish as if it had never even been there.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  How does one respond to an unsolicited offer like this one?  I wanted to ask him with as much condescension as I could muster, “why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?”  I wanted to inform him, “I have seen tree after tree come down in this neighborhood; I am not going to let you destroy another one!”  I wanted to preach to him, “the world, and especially this part of this city, needs more trees, not fewer.”  I wanted to drive him away, not just from my driveway, but from my neighborhood as well, “what gives you the right to go around encouraging people to cut down perfectly healthy trees?”

Instead, I swallowed my righteous indignation and answered him with a bit more professional respect.  But only a bit.  “We might need a little trim, but we wouldn’t want to cut it down!”  He muttered something about trimming a few branches, I promised to talk with my wife about what we might do, and he and his colleagues continued down the street to spread their generous offer of cheap removal of healthy, mature trees.

I looked at the business card on the way into the house:  “B & C Tree and Lawn Service:  No Job Too Large or Small.”  There was nothing about the qualifications of the technicians who would be servicing the trees or the lawns which might be put under their care.  There was nothing about the number of years the owners had been doing this kind of work or the availability of references from satisfied clients.  There was only the promise that size does not, in fact, matter to them and the phone number to call to have my tree removed.

The encounter made me wonder:  why did the proprietors of B & C Tree and Lawn Service think it would be worth their time to make unsolicited offers to remove trees from our neighborhood?  And the answer is obvious:  because people in our neighborhood might want to get rid of their trees.  In a typical suburban neighborhood like ours, trees can easily be considered a problem.  Trees are not orderly or neat.  Trees drop leaves, twigs, and even whole branches.  Trees are home to birds and other fauna who make messes on clean cars.  Trees grow unevenly sometimes:  they droop over here, making us duck our heads, and they lean over there, making everything look a bit off-kilter.

Trees are opposed to the suburban ideal.  The suburbs were developed as a way for the middle class to escape the problems of urban neighborhoods while still avoiding the problems of real nature.  Real nature is disordered, unpredictable, even chaotic.  It does not conform to any ideals of balance or symmetry in design.  It does not follow any standards of behavior, and it does not respect clearly delineated boundaries of space.  Nature cannot understand the difference between a place which ought to be clean and a place which can be dirty, or a place which demands a lot of light and a place which should be shaded.  Nature just grows, and spreads, and then when it is done, it falls back and dies, only to grow again the next year.  Nature is problematic to anyone with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to keep some standards of neatness and cleanliness.  Nature is kind of like God in that way.

The impulse to control nature is one I understand, even if I do not believe it is in the long-term best interests of our community or our planet.  I was pleased to read a piece on the editorial page of the Savannah Morning News this morning written by Jerry Flemming, the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries.  In his column, Mr. Flemming spoke about the large population of fall webworms in our city this year.  Fall webworms are caterpillars which spin webs in trees.  The webs surround leaves, which the webworms then eat.  Once they have eaten all of the leaves inside their webs, they expand the webs to encompass more leaves.  This year, because we had a mild winter and a wet spring and summer, there are more fall webworms in our city’s trees than normal, and property owners have apparently been calling the city with concerns.

I understand the concerns because the River Birch in our front yard, which the B & C Tree and Lawn Service offered to obliterate for me, has sustained a particularly prolific population of fall webworms this year.  Last month, the meatiest part of the leaves on most of the tree were eaten away, and only the lacy remains of the veins were left.  Then, the fall webworms fell to the ground and started looking for a place to pupate.  Each day for a week or so, scores of fall webworms crawled their way across the cement floor of my front porch and up my front door.  My wife refused to use that door.  My son was fascinated as long as he could see them from a distance.  It was gross.  Nature is not helpful to those of us with an impulse to control, to bring order, or to maintain some standards of neatness.

Within a few days, though, the webworms stopped coming, and a good squirt with the garden hose got rid of the remains of the creatures which I had not been able to sweep into the azalea bed in front of the porch.  In the mean time, I had done my research:  fall webworms are harmless to the trees because they eat the leaves at just about the time they will die anyway.  The tree will leaf out again next spring, and once we get a good freeze or a surge in natural predators to control the population, all evidence of the infestation will be gone.  So there really is no need to do anything about the webworms.

That was more or less the advice which Mr. Flemming gave.  However, in the final paragraph of his column, he gave this caveat:  “If you have a highly valued ornamental, fruit or nut tree and are concerned, call an arborist. If the caterpillars or moths are invading your home, call a pesticide applicator.”  And in many ways, I wish he hadn’t said that.  I worry that it is too much of a nod to those people who cannot forbear this little bit of the chaos of nature invading their neat, ordered, suburban yards.  I worry that it encourages homeowners to try to control the problem anyway by calling in the “experts” and offering them healthy profits for spraying God-knows-what kinds of chemicals which will end up in our groundwater and rivers.  I worry that, instead of calling qualified arborists, who will calmly counsel them to just wait for the webworms to go away, his advice will encourage my neighbors to call people like the owner of B & C Tree and Lawn Service.  Because I know that, for three hundred dollars or so, B & C Tree and Lawn Service will happily oblige the homeowners’ disgust and fear of this most recent infestation of nature by removing the trees altogether.  No Job Too Large or Small.

The world needs more healthy mature trees, not fewer.  I wish the owners of B & C Tree and Lawn Service recognized that.  I wish my neighbors who have removed perfectly fine trees from their yards recognized that.  I wish the purveyors of the suburban ideal recognized that.  I wish the City of Savannah’s Director of Parks, Trees, and Cemeteries communicated that clearly, repeatedly, and without any qualification.  Why would I want to remove a perfectly healthy, mature tree?

The Compassion of Nature

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I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was fiddling around in the flower bed in front of my house when I saw yet another anole.  We have had a bunch of these little chameleon-like creatures in our yard this summer; I think the wet weather has led to an abundance of greenery, which has led to an abundance of insects, which supports a larger population of predators who eat primarily insects, including anoles.  I have seen many anoles in the past few weeks which were quite small, as if there was a baby boom among the reptilian crowd in my yard.  I don’t mind; did I mention that they eat bugs?  And they’re kind of cute and fascinating and quite photogenic.

I went inside to get my camera.  I have taken plenty of photos of the anoles in my yard, but the light was nice, and I had a few minutes, and this one looked especially striking against the large, smooth texture of the leaves of the elephant ears.  I chose the long lens, thinking that I would get a better close-up with the greater zoom.  Once I got my equipment together, I stood the requisite three feet away to get the zoom lens and auto focus to work right together.  I looked through the viewfinder, and started snapping photos.

Then, I noticed something that made this particular anole unique.  At first, I didn’t believe it.  I had to do a double-take, and then look at the screen on my camera to see if it was real.  Maybe I was just looking from a funny angle; maybe it was hidden behind a leaf or an arm or something.  But no; it was just the way I saw it.

The anole was missing a hand.

He was, well, how would he like to be called?  Was he handicapped?  Or did he prefer disabled?  That didn’t make any sense.  Clearly, this animal was quite well-abled.  Before I knew he was, um, different, I had watched him easily climb up the long stem of the elephant ear leaf.  He was not especially thin, which would have indicated that he could not keep up with the bugs which make up his diet.  He looked more mature than many of the smaller anoles I have seen in my yard recently, which means he could run deftly enough to get away from whatever considers him prey.  He was just as able as any anole I have seen.  So what was he?  Was he “differently-abled?”  No; that sounds a little condescending.  How would I describe him?  He was simply missing a hand.

What I really wanted to do was to ask him some questions.  How did he lose his hand?  Was it a dramatic escape from one of the neighborhood cats?  Did he cross into some other anole’s territory and get into a fight?  Did he get trapped between a rock and a hard place and have to choose between his hand and his life?  Or was he just born that way, with some sort of genetic mix-up which missed the cue to grow what would otherwise be at the end of his arm while he was inside his egg?

I was too shy to ask him those questions, though.  I realized I really don’t know him at all, so it seemed somehow impolite to get so personal.  I hated the fact that I was staring at him for so long.  I didn’t want him to feel awkward.  But still, I was fascinated:  how did he walk?  Was it different than the way other anoles walk?  Could he lunge so he could take his prey by surprise?  Or did he have to learn a different way to hunt after his accident, or his fight, or whatever it was that caused him to lose his hand.  He seemed willing to have me take his portrait, so I thought to myself that it would be more polite to just look at the pictures later rather than to keep gawking and wondering in the moment.  Soon enough, he spotted something that had landed a few inches in front of him on the leaf, and we both moved on.

As I think about my encounter with this anole, however, I realized I am surprised at the grace of Nature this anole reveals.  I think of Nature as a harsh, rational, survival-of-the-fittest kind of power.  The Darwinians teach us that, right?  Only the strong, healthy, and fully able survive in Nature.  Those who are weak in body, mind, or spirit are picked off by predators or simply left to starve and die alone.  The struggle to survive is the only way each species remains strong enough to carry good genetic material on to future generations.  It seems cruel to us as sophisticated, self-reflective creatures, but that is just how Nature works.

But here was an animal who had faced some kind of trauma, either in his formation or in a fight, and that trauma hadn’t killed him.  His body healed itself:  his blood clotted to keep him from losing what little liquid life force he has inside him, his antibodies prevented infection without the help of Neosporin, his skin closed over the place where his hand used to be with no stitches or Band-Aids, the muscles in his shoulder and elbow and leg strengthened to compensate for the balance and coordination he would otherwise have from his hand.  His mind taught him how to adapt.  His surroundings nurtured him until he could get the food and the shelter he needed all on his own.  Anoles are notoriously lonely beings, aggressively territorial and unlikely to socialize with other anoles, even their own young, for any purpose other than to mate.  So I don’t assume that he had the care of a mother or a father or a kind neighbor or supportive teacher to help him figure out how he was going to get along without his hand.  I doubt his insurance covered occupational therapy.  Still, Nature didn’t dispose of him like a strictly rational Darwinian would suppose.  Nature nurtured him so he could get along just fine, hand or no hand, fulfilling his function of keeping the population of insects in check in his little territory in the flower bed in front of my house.

And Nature doesn’t feel the need to put a label on this particular anole.  Nature doesn’t ask nosy questions about how he came to be so, well, abnormal.  Nature doesn’t gawk or stare at the injury or single him out in any way at all.  Nature just lets him go about his business.

I wonder if Nature is more compassionate than we give her credit for.

Note:  I now have note cards with images of Anoles available for sale in my online shop, so you can share these fascinating creatures with your friends and family!  Click here to check them out!

Disdain and Tenacity

IMG_5355 (534x800)I like my lawn.  I like my lawn because it is not all grass.  There is an incredible variety of plants which live in my lawn alongside the centipede and Bermuda and St. Augustine grasses which have become all mixed up out there.  Some of those plants have broad leaves along trailing vines, like the dichondra and the dollar weed.  Some of the plants form florets of leaves around a center stem, like the dandelions.  Some of the plants even have fuzzy leaves; I am not even sure what those are called.  The occasional oak tree pokes it’s lobed leaves up in the middle of my lawn.  I even have one or two crepe myrtle bushes which have been trying for years to push themselves up into their towering shrub form from the midst of my lawn.  Each time I mow, I think I will finally discourage the poor things enough that they will just shrivel up and disappear.  But they don’t; they just spread broader and poke up more branches in their futile attempts at reaching their full potential.  Bless their hearts.

But even with all of their variety, taken together, the plants in my lawn serve the same function as the grass in any lawn in an average suburban neighborhood.  That is to say, those plants are supposed to serve no individual function at all.  They are not supposed to stand out in any way.  Instead, they are supposed to look like a uniform meadow of green.  Their role in the world is not so much to paint a picture but to create a mood.  Landscape designers will tell you that swaths of green are necessary to allow the eye to rest.  They provide peace and calm, order and structure, shape and form, so that the other elements of the landscape can shine.  They are like herbaceous background singers, offering their rhythmic hums and do-wops so that the diva-like soloists can strut their stuff on the front of the stage.  That, I believe, is why dandelions are so offensive.  They plant themselves in the middle of the lawn, and although they have a different texture than what surrounds them, they are not, on the whole, ugly.  But then they shove their uppity, yellow blossoms toward the sky, and it becomes obvious that they have forgotten their place in the world.  The nerve!

Contrast the role of those varied plants in the lawn with what is in my flower beds.  That is where you will find the real stars of the kingdom plantae.  I have plenty of springtime divas out there right now:  the brilliant pink calla lilies glow, the gerbera daisies strut their primary yellow- and red-colored stuff, the oriental lily hybrids attract attention to their blushing petals, and the caladiums I bought earlier this spring show off the dazzling variegation of their leaves.  Or even contrast the workhorses of the vegetable and herb gardens.  The tomatoes and peppers and strawberries and oregano are not as gorgeous as the callas, the lilies, the daisies, and the caladiums.  But the flavors they bring rival the glory of the ornamental superstars.

Each of those plants serves a positive function, and they are special because of that function.  The plants in my lawn serve a negative function:  they are not supposed to compete with the plants in the flower and vegetable beds for attention.  And that is all.

And so, imagine my surprise and shock a few weeks ago at what I saw in the middle of my lawn.  At the top of a lobed-leaf plant poking up from the middle of the lawn, about equidistant from the river birch which dominates the front yard and the flower bed which lines the front of the house, there was a tiny, white flower.  And I recognized that flower and the leaves that accompanied it at once:  it was a blackberry.  A wild blackberry was trying with all its little might to grow and bloom and produce fruit in the middle of the front lawn.

I took some time to admire the little thing.  Its disdain for the overall function of the lawn that surrounded it, along with its sheer tenacity, earned my respect.  It didn’t care where it was planted.  It didn’t care about the horror its presence would cause the landscape designers; it didn’t care whether my eye had an opportunity to rest between gazes at the prettier things coming up in my yard.  It didn’t care that the rules say the fruit-bearing flora belongs in the back yard.  It had no interest in suburban propriety.  Its one mission in life was to fight for the right to bear its fruit, and by God, it was going to fight hard.  It had even armed itself with a score or more of spikes up and down its three-inch stem, daring someone, anyone, to tell it that it couldn’t do what it was destined to do, right in the spot where it found itself.

There are any number of metaphors that could be drawn from this little berry bramble asserting its right to do its thing wherever it grew.  I think of my son, whose intelligence and uniquely beautiful personality I can see, but who sometimes gets lost as necessary order is imposed on the jumble of dozens of kindergarten students who are made to sit still at their tables and stand straight in line and listen to the teacher and avoid distracting their neighbors.  I think of activists and artists and other saints in many times and places who have stood up not only for their own right to show their unique beauty and skill in the world, but who have organized and taught others to stand up and stand out, too.  I think of the narratives of my Christian faith, which give example after example of times when God has unexpectedly lifted ordinary people out of their ordinary circumstances to mediate extraordinary blessing to God’s people and the whole of God’s creation.

Any of those thoughts could lead me to lessons potentially learned from this little, wild blackberry which dared to bloom in the middle of my lawn  But I am not sure a lesson is what is needed here.  For now, I think I am ready to simply appreciate that a disdain for order and tenacity of purpose are not exceptional in this world; in fact, they are very natural.

I like my lawn because it is not all grass.